Living in Exile: What Really Happened to Alexis Argüello?

By Christian Giudice on July 7, 2013
Living in Exile: What Really Happened to Alexis Argüello?
When it came to politics, a strange pattern had emerged in Argüello’s complicated life.

Four years after his death, and there are still more questions than answers. Four years later and still no closure. Four years later and no closer to the truth…

“There’s nothing you can do. If you go back, they will take your life.”—Trainer and lifelong Argüello friend, Don Kahn

Sometimes ignorance and resentment can come from the most unlikeliest of sources. In the ring, Alexis Argüello always knew his opponent and how to approach and attack him. Outside the ring, it was not always that easy. Back in the summer of 1979, he was blindsided by a set of events that still seem unexplainable to this day.

Not long after displacing the dictatorship of Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza Debayle on July 19, 1979, the FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) confiscated all of Argüello’s holdings, which were valued near $500,000. True to Argüello’s character, the only thing he cared about was his family’s safety. He would make another fortune and another one on top of that one, but hearing that his mother and sister were forced into the streets of Managua sparked an anger that never left him.

For the first time in his life, Argüello could not go home.

Ingrained within the fighter—even before the confiscation—was the capacity to emotionally detach himself from controversy away from the ring. He possessed an innate ability that few could attest to. On several occasions during his career, Argüello faced hypocrisy and encountered power struggles that he sidestepped with class and dignity. In 1981, Argüello was training in Tucson, Arizona at the Estevan Gym for a bout with Roberto Elizondo when a police officer entered and immediately threw him out of the gym, citing a bogus technicality. Locals were enraged at the mistreatment of their guest, but Argüello moved on without incident. To him, the disrespect represented nothing more than a blip on the radar. Argüello always knew when to engage or when to pull back. It was crucial that he never lost his composure or the respect of his fans; that mentality guided him in the ring.

Two years earlier another battle was in its early stages.

Unbeknownst to many, it was a parade in the city of Esteli in 1975 that ignited the controversial split with the Sandinistas. Or at least that was the pretext the new government used to exile a national treasure. As a recently crowned champion, Argüello was approached by then Somoza’s chief, Rene Molina, to be given an honor during a parade in the mountainous Esteli region. He would be awarded an honorary lieutenant title with the National Guard.

As a newly crowned champ, Argüello didn’t consider the implications of the invitation; for that matter, no one could have predicted the repercussions. What many viewed as a political maneuver on the part of Somoza, Argüello saw as a kind gesture, a way of giving back to his people.

However, the appearance backfired miserably. The next day, a newspaper published a photo of Argüello riding a horse in the parade with a caption that mocked him. The mild-mannered Arguello was infuriated by the caustic media response.

His manager and adviser, Eduardo Roman, reminded the young champion the next day that as world champ he had to be wary of whom he appears to support.

“All the presidents tried to get close to him,” said Roman. “Somoza didn’t help Alexis in a real way. He invited him to a presentation with 100,000 people, and Alexis went without telling me.”

Roman continued: “I forbade him to attend political events like that. When I saw him the next day I went up to him and said, ‘You are not a champ of the Somozistas. You are a champ of all Nicaragua.’ Alexis wanted to be a friend of everyone and had no political opinions.”

According to a former member of the Nicaraguan Boxing Commission, Sergio Quintero, “The incident that happened with Somoza was very innocent. Alexis had no idea about backdoor dealings that were going on.”

The damage was done. Four years later the Sandinistas used the honorary lieutenant tag as fodder for cheap and unfounded accusations as they casually spread Argüello’s wealth. They had unfairly labeled Argüello a Somoza sympathizer, and justified the theft as another reason to fund frivolous revolutionary “needs.” To deepen the wound, it was reported that Soviet envoys were driving around Argüello’s BMW and living out of his house. Nowhere was it mentioned that on June 17 Alexis’ brother, Edward, died fighting for the Sandinistas.

In a matter of months, a country ushered in a new regime and ushered out a hero. As much as it hurt the Nicaraguan people, they were helpless to do anything about it.

A week prior to the split, politics and boxing were already intertwined when Argüello came into the ring against Bazooka Limon on July 8 draped in a red and black Sandinista robe. Critics viewed the act as an idea concocted by Roman to appease a new government that was in position to take over. Conversely, Argüello supporters downplayed the incident.

“Revolutionary leaders saw it as a piece of opportunism organized by Roman,” said Tijerino.

Roman later noted that his decision to bring the flag was taken out of context, and that he was supporting a Nicaragua that “didn’t want a dictatorship anymore.” Still, bringing in the flag accelerated a chain of events that tested Argüello’s will and character more than ever before.

“After we carried the flag in for the Limon fight, everything happened negatively,” said longtime trainer and close friend, Don Kahn. “He couldn’t go back. He was so angry.”

When Argüello found out he couldn’t go home, it would take decades to forgive, but he never forgot. Evidence of this steadfastness occurred in 1981 when FSLN President Daniel Ortega sent popular journalist Edgard Tijerino and Sandinista representative Sammy Santos to locate Argüello, then a lightweight champ, in Venezuela to discuss a peaceful reconciliation. Although Tijerino and Argüello had been extremely close at the outset of the fighter’s career, Roman suspected ulterior motives, and urged Argüello to turn down the offer. Although Tijerino supported the revolution, he also recognized its flaws. Years later, Tijerino said, “What happened and what they did to Alexis was a failure of the revolution. Alexis was the victim.”

In the ring, Argüello polished off a Hall of Fame career where he went on to win three world titles in as many weight classes. After a couple years removed from the sport, Argüello finally got the call to go home again. He returned to a hero’s welcome in 1990 as new President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro made promises of change. However, the timing wasn’t ideal. Having forged a desperate attempt to fight for the Contras, as well as a failed marriage and comeback try, Argüello came back to Nicaragua looking for answers—and the fortune that was stolen from him.

Although part of Argüello’s fortune and properties were eventually returned to him, he became disenchanted with the waiting process, and moved back to the US where he initiated his second and final comeback attempt in 1994.

A final failed boxing comeback led to one of his darkest periods. But, similar to his ring persona, Argüello never stopped fighting. Having floated aimlessly for a few years without any real foundation, Argüello’s bid to turn his life around came about in 2000 due to support from close friends. Argüello also made the decision to reunite with Ortega, who regained his presidency by 2006. The move to mend the relationship left Argüello supporters dumbfounded; others perceived it as necessary for the fighter to start making a difference.

Few believed that Ortega was sincere about the re-establishing the friendship.

By November 2008, Argüello was elected mayor of Managua. He wanted nothing more than to help the poor—his people. Genuine and honest, both rare traits for a politician, Argüello was loved by his people. When Argüello had the opportunity, he made a positive impact. However, along the way he had drawn the ire of some high ranking Sandinistas, and was publicly relegated to figurehead status.

“I think he was genuine about wanting to work as a good mayor for Managuans and showed some honest efforts in relation to that. I wonder if it made much sense for the FSLN to put out a candidate like that when really all they wanted was someone to follow the plans of integrating the CPC’s (Councils of Citizen Power) with the City Council,” said Johannes Wilm, author of Nicaragua, Back from the Dead? “It would probably also have been a good idea for them to work with Alexis before the elections to make sure he understood what role they wanted him to play.”

By July 2009, Argüello was gone.

Theories still abound about what happened to Argüello the night he died. Nothing has been confirmed or even accepted by the people who cared about the man. A sense of unrest is still palpable when discussing the fateful evening.

Yet, when it came to politics, a strange pattern had emerged in Argüello’s complicated life. In July 1979, the Sandinistas confiscated everything. Thirty years later, they returned to rob Argüello again. This time it was a different type of theft—one that Argüello couldn’t defend himself against. First, Ortega and the Sandinista party used and benefited from Argüello’s popularity as mayor, then they publicly stripped him of any power several months later, and finally they bullied him into submission as they pushed him into a corner that he couldn’t escape from.

After Argüello’s death, they tried to honor him by building a statue of him that reeked of insincerity.

“The media reports simply stated that he had shot himself and that they were sending his body for an autopsy,” said Nicaraguan Liz Green, whose frustration is typical of many Nicaraguans. “... Sadly, everything revolved around rumors, different pictures, speculation and multiple reports of people which made it all more confusing.”

Four years later after his death, and there are still more questions than answers. Four years later and still no closure. Four years later and no closer to the truth. What happened to Alexis Argüello? We may never know. But as the years go by, the farther the people will get from knowing the truth. Now, amid the silence, all the people have to cling to is a fading memory of the hero they once knew.

Christian Giudice is the author of Beloved Warrior: The Rise and Fall of Alexis Argüello

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  1. Rickster 06:20am, 06/03/2018

    Alexis Arguello DID NOT commit suicide. He…not Ali was the greatest boxer of all time. I was entering into boxing in the early 80’s and he was not only the greatest boxer he is a great person. Shameful what your government did to you.

  2. SweetScience 09:06pm, 08/09/2015

    My heart is turned upside itself everytime i hear more about the draining of Alexis’s soul energy, and try to push aside the"mystery” of it all, in attempts to continuously think of his life for the phenomenal true humanism as it is… Not a mystery story with cliffhangers.
    I hope i did not find this article, nor these comments too late for a response to mine…
    And against the seemingly hypocritic request, after saying i will always try to remember him with heart, not a fun, drama filled story…
    But can i ask of the folks on this post, that speak of good boxing books to read, can you give me a list of some i should read? To me, this “sport” is lived by true fighting spirits, that walk into a glory ring, their bare back exposed to the world, carrying the living and the dead with them, into a match with the spirit of all involved. What a phenomenal thing. I would love to read more than i have. Please list me these books you speak of, and i will seek out any that i have not read…

  3. Johnathan Lee Iverson 11:16am, 08/06/2015

    Great piece Christian!

    What a heartbreaking story. To see a man of such class and stature be so abused sickens me, especially by the very people he cared for. The trappings of government power are all the same, no matter the original intent of so called “liberators.” It’s all a power grab. It’s all about THEM jockeying to play God.

    May the great champion rest in peace. I can only hope he and his loved ones receive justice someday.

  4. don frisbie 11:00pm, 01/31/2014

    of all the great latino champions, I loved alexis like he was my son. a great fighter there is no doubt…....but more than that he was a real “class.” and the great representative of his country because he was so humble. rest in peace brother, there won’t be another boxer like you.

  5. Chris Giudice 11:16am, 07/27/2013

    Raymond - It’s a shame you missed the point of the article. Arguello was never a supporter of the Somoza regime. Back when he was champ, he was manipulated by the regime. As for your ignorant comment and rant about Arguello being “dumb as a brick,” he actually was a pretty smart guy who had a good political mind. Being a pretty narrow-minded guy yourself, I wouldn’t expect you to believe that since it appears you only like to hear yourself talk. You don’t have to read the article, but at least get your facts straight.

  6. Raymond J Comeau 03:50am, 07/14/2013

    I liked Alex Arguello as a boxer, he was very good. But, I could never figure out his actions in his private life.

    Arguello supported the Dictator Somosa , who was keeping the working people of Nicaragua deprived of the basics in life, while Somosa and his supporters, backed by the Imperialistic USA got rich and fat.

    The Contras were a rag tag bunch of murderers bought and paid for by the USA ( in contravention to USA laws and the USA CONSTITUTION).  Violetto Chamarro was a favourite ‘Puppet’ of the USA who also was bought and paid for by the USA, to bring back the USA Control of Nicaragua that the USA lost with the ousting of Somosa.  Transisister radios were the coin which bought voters to elect Chamorro.

    So, Arguello was either a wanna be rich elite supporter of USA Imperialism, or he was as dumb as a brick ( or a combination of both).

    I, at the time had a family of wife and 3 children and a barely survival salary but I scraped up what money I could find to support the people of Nicaragua against the USA Contras.

    Things haven’t gotten much better in Latin and Central America. The USA still have their puppets (whom they train in The School of The Americas) to become Dictators and to go back to Latin America and keep their people below the poverty line while supporting ‘USA Interests’ in Latin America.

    The recent Snowdon incident, and the USA forcing Evo Morales plane down, is proof of the dastardly deeds he USA does against Latin and Central America.

    With due respect Christian Giudice, I suggest that you brush up on your history.  Interview Galiano, who will give you the real history of USA Imperialism in Nicaragua, not what you get from USA TV.  The people of Nicaragua deserve the truth ! Alexis Arguello was a true boxing hero, but as a supporter of the Nicaraguan people he was a hopeless ignorant supporter of Somosa, and USA Imperialism.

    One excellent book you should read is about the young USA Engineer, who after finishing his Degree ( with financial support from the USA) went to build a dam for the Nicaraguan people. The student engineer was murdered by the Contras on orders from the USA government , because he dam would have provided water and electricity to the poor, and that was against USA Interests. That is how the USA treats Latin and Central America. They treat it as their supply depot, and they steal what they want and buy off or kill anyone who tries to stop them ! Read The Monroe Doctrine !

  7. Matt Mosley 02:17am, 07/14/2013

    Thanks for the article. What a sad state of affairs. No offence meant to any Nicaraguans but when I read about stuff like this it just makes me glad I live in the country that I do (England). I know all governments are corrupt to some extent but some of these poorer countries sound like they must be hell to live in, especially if you are someone with a conscience who tries to do the right thing.
    I have your book on Roberto Duran and I have this Arguello book on my amazon wish list. I will buy it soon.
    I have quite a lot of quality boxing books (around 50) that I have yet to read though.

  8. Lindy Lindell 01:42pm, 07/08/2013

    Thanks, Christian.  Your piece and the documentary that follows wonderfully captures the man, his love for his country and his humanity.  As a (relatively) young reporter in 1980, I had occasion to interview him prior to his bout with Gerald Hayes.  I simply called his room in Caesars Palace and he invited me to his room where I was surprised that he was in bed with his wife, both lounging in their underwear and finishing up a large platter of fruit worthy of the name Caesars.

  9. BahoPuwet 11:29am, 07/08/2013

    I think his losses to Aaron Pryor hurt him too especially finding out the Pryor and Panama Lewis CHEATED by making Aaron drink a special bottle fortified with drugs. Supposedly drinking that special bottle helped Pryor’s lung power. Thus, the quick recovery time.
    Panama Lewis ought to be castrated and shipped to Iraq…....... let the Iraqis have fun with him.

  10. Pete The Sneak 06:27am, 07/08/2013

    Great piece Christian…Everytime I read something as to what was done to Alexis in his home country and the circumstances surrounding his “Suicide,” it breaks my heart. Arguello was a true man of his people and his caring and compassion for his fellow Nicaraguans and the love he had for his country, ironically enough also led to his demise. While Alexis did have his issues with drugs and appeared at one time to be going in a terrible downward spiral, his love of his country never wavered; and it’s because of such loyalty and Patriotism towards Nicaragua that truly blinded Arguello to the Political farce and ultimate betrayal the Sandinistas perpetrated on him once it was decided he was no longer an asset to them. Conjecture? Maybe. But Arguello’s death to me being ruled a suicide (shoot yourself in the chest?) is as preposterous as Casey Anthony being named Mom of the Century. Peace.

  11. Ted 05:57am, 07/08/2013

    Excellent work, CG. Well written.

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